Virgil

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Virgil (70-19 BCE) is generally acknowledged as the greatest of the Latin poets. ('Virgil' is the traditional English spelling, but 'Vergil' would be more accurate since Virgil's full name in Latin was Publius Vergilius Maro. See also Pronunciation of Latin proper names.) The adjective used in English to describe the man or his writing is Virgilian.

Virgil's life spanned one of the most turbulent periods in Roman history. He witnessed the final years of the Roman Republic, which were marked by public disorder and rivalry between great generals such as Julius Caesar and Pompey; the Civil War which followed the assassination of Julius Caesar by Brutus and Cassius in 44 and ended in 31 with the victory of Octavian (Caesar's heir) at the battle of Actium; and the establishment of a new (monarchical) system of government with Octavian, now known as Augustus, as the first of the Roman emperors.

Virgil was born near Mantua (modern Mantova) and in the course of his education spent time in Cremona, Milan and, finally, Rome. During the last decade or more of his life he lived near Naples with occasional visits to Sicily. By his early thirties he had attracted the attention of (Gaius) Maecenas, the great literary patron of the period, and a friend of Octavian; and throughout the last twenty years of his life he enjoyed the patronage of both Maecenas and Octavian. (After he became emperor Octavian, now Augustus, took a keen interest in the Aeneid and encouraged Virgil in its composition - see below.)

Virgil is the author of three major poetic works.

  • The Eclogues (or Bucolics) is a collection of ten poems modelled on the Idylls of the Greek poet Theocritus (?310-?250 BCE). The poems in the Eclogues are pastorals: they deal with rural themes, painting an idealised picture of life in the country and recounting incidents in the lives of shepherds. (Eclogues is the English version of the Latin word eclogae, which in turn is a transliteration of the Greek eklogai (ἐκλογαί), meaning: selections. Eclogae may not have been the title which Virgil himself gave to this collection of poems.)
  • The Georgics is a set of four longer poems which deal with the life and duties of farmers. The Georgics - Latin Georgica, again a transliteration of the Greek georgika (γεωργικά), meaning 'matters related to farming' - is loosely based on another Greek model, the Works and Days of the eighth century poet Hesiod. Virgil's father was a farmer, and it is probable that in writing the Georgics he drew on his childhood experiences of his father's farm.
  • The Aeneid, the epic poem which tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas, is indisputably the greatest of Virgil's works. Virgil took as his model for the Aeneid the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Books I-VI of the Aeneid, which tell of Aeneas' wanderings after the fall of Troy and of his arrival in Italy, are based on the Odyssey, while Books VII-XII, which tell of Aeneas' battles in Italy, are based on the Iliad. The Aeneid ends with the foundation of Lavinium, a city which, according to mythology, had strong links with the future city of Rome; and the poem contains a number of 'prophecies' of Rome's future greatness. The Aeneid can therefore be seen as a kind of national epic, and this was no doubt one of the reasons why the emperor Augustus encouraged Virgil in the composition of the work: he saw it as helpful in fostering acceptance of the new political order he had established. At the time of Virgil's death in 19 BCE the Aeneid still needed revision; and in fact Virgil had stipulated that should he die before being able to complete this revision, the manuscript should be destroyed. Augustus, however, overrode Virgil's wishes and insisted on publication.

The influence of the Aeneid on later Latin writers and on European literature generally can scarcely be overestimated. Its language, along with that of the orator Cicero (106-43 BCE), came to be regarded as definitive of the Classical Latin language; and the poem became a model which influenced not only later Latin poets but poets writing in other languages. In particular, Dante (1265-1321 CE) took the Aeneid as his model for the Commedia, the epic poem in which he narrates his imaginary journey through the afterlife; and it is the figure of Virgil who is Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory, the first two of the three stages of this journey.